John Cusack in ADULT WORLD: No More Mr. Nice Guy

John Cusack in ADULT WORLD: No More Mr. Nice Guy

Several times during his turn as Rat Billings, the grizzled
poet at the heart of Adult World, I wanted to punch John Cusack in the face.
It’s a brilliant performance. In the quirky solar system of odd personalities
making up this tale of a young Syracuse grad who wants desperately to be a
published poet and takes Rat as her guide, Cusack makes an erstwhile and unfriendly
sun: the other characters float around Rat like so many misfit asteroids. While
some aspects of the film have an indie-fied clunk to them, Adult World works beautifully as a sad, sensitive character study,
in which two people who could not be more different find some common ground—even
if that common ground involves hostility. The main story of the film—a young
poet needs money, finds work at a porn store, meets lots of interesting, kind
people, and learns something about herself in the process—seems grossly outshadowed
by the Krazy-Kat-and-Ignatz-style love-hate relationship between Cusack and his
young would-be protégé.

This is a curious film, because the key characteristic that
Cusack has always offered his audience is a certain comfort born of geniality.
His emotional highs and emotional lows are always mitigated by a gentle squint
and a soft, vaguely raspy voice. Even when he is seething with romantic rage as
Rob in High Fidelity, or assassinating people with high efficiency in Grosse Pointe
Blank
, or swindling smoothly in The Grifters, you feel sympathy with him: sure,
he just killed a man, but he must be an okay guy, deep down, right? This feeling
we have might stem not so much from an effort on Cusack’s part to please
audiences as from a certain relaxation with the camera—his tendency to “play
himself” in films has been well-documented. His performance in this film gives
little of the prior sense of comfort. Cusack might well be relaxed in the role,
but it’s what he’s relaxing into that’s
significant. 

Rat is a certain kind of writing professor, whom anyone who
has gone through a writing program might recognize (director Scott Coffey must
have done his research): once proud, once tough and able to toss off bons mots with great ease, now settled
into teaching at a university, not as well-praised, pushing himself through
writing courses, possibly wondering if the whole thing is worth continuing, and
taking it out on his students. When Amy (Emma Roberts), an ambitious young
writer just out of college, forces herself on him in an effort to learn from
him, he literally runs away from her—as he does from his students at the end of
one of his writing classes. When the two of them have their first conversation,
everything about Rat suggests enclosure: the way he folds his arms and legs in
on himself, the pursed frown, and the cold look in his eyes, which he maintains
throughout the film. Rat’s nastiness comes out most interestingly in the
details, the small things he does. At one point, early in their acquaintance,
Rat asks Amy, “Did Leyner put you up to this? Did Mark…?” Although Cusack and
Mark Leyner, author of urbane humor classics Et Tu, Babe, My Cousin, My
Gastroenterologist
, and The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, among others, are
offscreen friends (they wrote War, Inc. together), mentioning Leyner says a lot
about Rat, or what he once was: a young, cocksure, hip, attitudinal upstart who
drew an audience in the early 1990s through his sarcasm and seeming toughness.
At another moment, after Amy has thrown herself at Rat in a drunken stupor, she
ends up in his lap: he heaves her, without much sentiment, onto a sofa, as if
to show what he really thinks of her. His nastiness comes out in broad strokes
too, of course; as he is about to slam his front door on Amy, he tosses off,
“You’re the kind of muse I’d get,” and she’s thrilled, too naïve to hear the
sarcasm. When he meets Amy’s parents, he confides to her mother that she “lacks
all knowledge.”  When a student in his class
asks if a poem’s interpretation will be “on the test,” he tells her, “You’ll be
tested every day, for the rest of your life, and you know what? You’ll fail.” The
director tries to give Rat some moments of tenderness, at the very end of the
film, but it rings falsely; somehow, for him to call Amy a “stem against the
tide,” after having misled her in various ways which I won’t spoil, isn’t quite
enough.

The film is carried, for the most part, by Cusack’s toned-down
but tuned-in performance, though Coffey’s supporting cast is strong as can be.
Funnily enough, John Cullum and Cloris Leachman play the owners of the porn store that gives the movie its title and gives Amy a job:
Cullum’s most famous role in the last 25 years was as Holling in the TV cult favorite Northern
Exposure
, in which his character married a woman a quarter his age, and Leachman
made a breakthrough performance in The
Last Picture Show
, as a football coach’s wife who cheats on her husband with a
teen-aged Timothy Bottoms. Though there is no romance between Rat and Amy, Coffey seems to nod to its possibility with his casting choices. Evan Peters, as the perky, well-adjusted porn store
manager, may be wildly miscast, but it’s easy to forgive, given the exuberance
and energy he brings to the part. Roberts herself could best be described as
intrepid; she brings as much magnitude as she can to what is, essentially, a
“straight man” role,” that is, playing off of Rat’s jaded, tired, vaguely
poisonous energy. There are many times where the movie’s seams show, where
Coffey hits us over the head with a wanna-be tale of “uplift” and “finding
yourself.” But the most interesting aspect of the film is its significance in
Cusack’s career. This part, along with his performance as convict Hillary in
The Paperboy or Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, are a long way from his performance as
Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. It will be enjoyable, if unnerving, to see where Cusack turns
next.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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